Licence to do what you like

There’s a local BBC news programme where I am certain the reporters are bored. You know, and they know, about how news should answer the questions How, What, Where, When and Why. On this show, though, they play a game and nearly always leave one of those out.

They ruined the fun recently, mind, by ending a three-minute package with a request for viewers to email in if they knew who the story was about. They had two facts to fill three minutes and they didn’t know one of them, but they admitted it. Ruined the game.

Sometimes it’s a bit more serious. I remember emailing or tweeting or something, when a reporter on that same show did a piece and failed to ask the most completely essential and obvious question. It was a yes or no question and I was terribly interested because depending on the answer, this story was now either about fraud or negligence.

I never found out which because I got a deeply snotty reply telling me that people aren’t interested.

But then there is the bigger and less funny case of BBC Breakfast. After the Remain march in London where organisers say a million people turned up, the BBC’s national news show deliberately got it wrong. You can dispute that a million were there and actually, so you should. Question everything. But BBC Breakfast’s Louise Minchin chose to say that there were tens of thousands instead.

That’s a national BBC journalist choosing to make a factual error.

I’ve worked for BBC News and I’ve been on Breakfast yet the result is that when she or anyone else on that show tells me the time is ten past eight, I look at my watch to check.

The reason I bring this up with you today, though, is that there is an online campaign to protest against the BBC by not watching it on some certain day. And the protest has nothing to do with anything the BBC has done, it’s about the over-75s not getting a free TV licence – because of the government.

You know that if you get free medication for any reason, it’s not because your pharmacist is in a good mood. It’s because the cost is paid by government funds. That was the case with the licence fee. Successive governments wanted to give the elderly certain benefits, so they did. It’s hard to remember a time when any government did anything that benefitted anybody outside in the Cabinet, but apparently it happened.

I don’t remember governments making a fuss about this, about scoring votes by doing it, so perhaps it’s only fair that the current one isn’t mentioning that it’s stopped doing it.

Except it’s fantastic, dramatically. One group takes away money from an organisation and manages to get everyone protesting against the organisation.

I’ve been thinking that if this weren’t governments and corporations, if it were individual characters, that you could make it up, but you wouldn’t. I was thinking that it would be too unbelievable, that doing something to another person, getting that person blamed for it, and then later using all of this to do some more damage to this poor sod, would feel contrived.

But it’s schoolyard stuff, this is the bully whistling innocence while the timid victim is too afraid to tell anyone. Unfortunately, it’s also BBC News not reporting the story.

And the rest

You have to think about money and I mean that in a practical way. If you're someone who just wants to be a writer and you think a lot about the vast fortunes that authors get, you're not going to write anything and you might as well fill the time with dreaming.

Whereas if you are a writer and you don't think about money at all, you're not going to stay a writer with a roof over your head for long.

I attended a workshop last night by Ken Preston about writing short romance novels – don't get me started on romance, I think it can be the most exciting and fraught of drama – and one very experienced writer there asked if it were crass to ask about the money.

Ken told her, and I know she knew anyway, that of course it isn't, of course you've got to know about the cash. He was particularly good, I thought, at then taking us through the money for particular projects and exactly how to navigate it all and what you get.

He couldn't have been clearer or more use and during the session I wrote the start of a new story which tickles me. Everything's good.

Only, on the way back, I was thinking about rubbish writers are with money – and for the first time, I thought that maybe we should be.

Just a little. Be a little bit rubbish with money.

I'm not saying you should go buy a £12,000 Mac Pro to write two poems a year on. And I'm definitely not saying, definitely never saying, that you should work for free.

Yet if your sole interest is money, pick another job.

I am a full-time freelance writer and I have become good with money because this is my business and I have to be.

But that story I started last night is unlikely to sell. On a strict pennies per word rate, the projects Ken Preston told us about are not financially worth it. Do what he says and you can make it better, you can make it a good extra income, but the effort-to-immediate return isn't there.

You need an income, you can't survive on air, but you also need to want to write. You need to need to write. I think I've said this before to anyone who'll stop long enough to listen, but if your aim in writing is all about the end, all about the publication and the money, you're going to have a dreadful time slogging through the actual typing.

Whereas if you're in this for the writing itself, well, you're still going to have a dreadful time slogging through the typing, but it will be the kind of dreadful that you can't resist, that you like, that is rewarding.

The writing itself has got to be rewarding or you'll go mad. Or, since you're a writer, let's say madder.

I mean all this and I am concerned when I've been in the pub with writers who don't care about the writing. But I think I also sound as if it's impossible to make money in this business so you might as well treat it as an enjoyable hobby.

No.

This isn't a hobby for me. Actually, I have no hobbies, in or out of writing. Everything I've ever been interested in has become part of the writing and if there have been times when it's gone extraordinarily badly, it's going well now.

So if this minute, right this second, I'm trying to hold on to you for longer because I'm a bit daunted by what I've got to go write for the rest of the day, I'm also looking forward to trying.

And I hope that tonight I will be able to just go to bed at a normal time instead of fainting onto the mattress. Writing is everything, and the rest.

It was easier with paper

Back when we did everything on paper, I know that there was a risk that a page could be lost or accidentally destroyed, but usually you just had to be a bit organised. Starting a new document was easy, too, as it was just picking the next blank page. Finding an existing one could be hard, but only because everything looked the same: everything was on A4, everything in the same handwriting or typescript.

Contrast that with yesterday morning when I needed to find something I wrote last year.

On the Mac I’m using, I’ve just counted seven word processors – no, wait, you can write in Adobe InDesign; you wouldn’t and shouldn’t but you can and I have – call it eight word processors.

And then three, no tell another lie, four apps that are used for keeping notes. That’s twelve places to find something and yes, Macs are supposed to be able to let you quickly find anything in any app, but that only seems to work when you’re demonstrating it. Knowing a key word from what I was looking for did not find it.

To be fair, when I came across it by accident later, I found that I’d misremembered that key word and said word is actually nowhere in the document, but come on.

I think I quite miss the days between now and paper. The patch where you did write on computers – no, wait, I write a lot on an iPad, let’s add another dozen writing apps and I’ve just realised I forgot both Final Draft and Highland 2 – anyway.

I miss that brief period where whatever you wrote, you turned to the same word processor. My memory’s faulty here because that word processor changed. But at least it changed every couple of years, not every minute as I pick one best suited to whatever I’m writing.

WordStar may have been the first, though I’m sure I’ve also seen that in a museum and I refuse to believe my own age. Then there was definitely WordPerfect because I wrote computer manuals for a firm and they – yes! They used WordStar until one Monday morning when that was replaced by WordPerfect. I remember finding WordPerfect so easy to use that I shrugged and carried on with the day’s work.

Then I liked it enough that I would leave that job and spend the rest of the day carrying on at home with the evening’s writing.

Around that time I must’ve started writing for technology magazines because I remember the day the WordPerfect Corporation sent me a pallet-full of software. WordPerfect for every conceivable type of computer available at the time.

And then that computer manual firm switched overnight to Microsoft Word and I got my first grey hair.

What I can’t recall is when automatically turning to Word to write anything, and then looking up manuals and online help to recover what Word lost, turned into the grab-bag, free-for-all, use-anything that we have today.

I know it was probably around 2010 because Microsoft famously believed it could kill the iPad by refusing to put Word on it. When people had to look for alternative word processors for their iPads, they found them. And having found them, they started using them on Macs and PCs too. I’m quite serious: you can chart the fall of Word from its 99% marketshare, or whatever it was, to today when it can only dream of ubiquity the way we dream of it not crashing.

Word is now on the iPad and actually it’s very good, but we’ve long since left home.

Just as we used to pick our blank paper stock carefully – okay, we wanted 80 to 120gsm stock but the office stationery cupboard only had lighter photocopying paper and we were cheap – so picking software matters. Maybe it’s less like the paper and more like the pen: it genuinely used to be a thing that writers were asked what pen or pencil they used. It genuinely used to be a thing where you could muse about 2B or not 2B and anybody would know what you meant.

It matters how these things feel. I can’t explain why writing in Word feels like treacle and writing in Drafts, a Mac and iOS app, feels fast. I can no more explain why I relish Drafts on my iPad and iPhone than I can comprehend how I only mostly like it on my Mac.

Like every other one of the however many writing tools I turn to, Drafts does various things that are helpful and that none of the rest do. For instance, I write to you via my website and that means posting the text in a WordPress site, then getting a short link to it, mentioning it on Facebook and Twitter. With Drafts, I write here on my Mac, then turn to it on my iPhone and the text is there, waiting for me to press a button that does all the posting and social media stuff.

That button probably saves me ten minutes each Friday morning and that’s ten minutes more that we get to spend chatting. It’s practically relaxed now. Can I get you a coffee?

Drafts has its benefits like that. All writing apps have their different benefits. But what’s crucial to me is that they also all have their feel.

And I have yet to find just the one writing tool that feels right to me for everything. I’ve yet to find one where I am solely focused on what I’m writing, not the tool I’m using to do it.

I have just this instant remembered yet another writing tool I have on all my devices and it’s one that I did write everything, absolutely everything in for at least six months last year. I wrote most of a book in it and I forgot it.

Right, that’s it, I give up. I must have blank paper somewhere, where are my pens?

It’s not on my mind at all, no

Most of the time, I get nightmares. I’m not saying all of them are ferocious, though they can be, but it’s pretty much every time I go to bed, that’s what I get. Oddly, the only break I have is when things are going especially badly. In that case, sleep is like escaping for a while. But if things are anywhere from okay to brilliant, cue the nightmares.

Fine. I don’t tend to remember them much, I don’t very often lurch awake pressing my chest, and sometimes they are fascinating. Well, to me. Such as the time when I had some really scary one, woke up sweating in the middle of the night, went to the loo, came back to bed and slipped straight into another nightmare –– which was the Making Of the first one.

It was the same things that had frightened me in the first nightmare, but now with a film crew and, I suddenly remember, on-screen graphics.

Okay. So last night, right, I’m having a nightmare and I know it’s got something to do with the Post Office, but I’m getting things sorted or franked or whatever it is, when I stop.

Right there in this nightmare, I stop and it’s as if I turn to camera. Because completely unrelated to anything in the dream, I say the words “It’s about me”.

And what I mean is that the answer to a drama project I’m struggling with is that really it’s about me.

It isn’t.

I don’t know why I said that and as it was in a dream, I can’t ask me, either.

But if I know now, talking to you, that the project isn’t at all about me, in the nightmare I was so convincing that I woke myself up. And I made a note of this. It seemed that crucial, that precious a solution.

Ultimately, everything you do is about yourself in some way. That’s certainly true with writing. You can’t help it. I’m minded of Fortunes of War, a 1980s BBC masterpiece, which was dramatised by Alan Plater from the novels by Olivia Manning. All the way through, it was Manning’s voice and yet it was also Alan’s.

And actually, maybe I can take that and my dream as a model. I’m not usually this unsettled about a project: I’m usually quite a practical writer and if it takes effort to get some things written, it’s now a process I’m used to. This one is hard and it’s also long and it’s a bit of a sacred trust.

So on the one hand I’ve got to get it right, but on the other, it’s up to me whether I get it at all. Intellectually, I knew I was vacillating over it all, but apparently it’s really got into me.

I’ll be happier when I figure it out, but it’s exciting to be facing something where I think I’ll be a better writer at the other end.

Going postal

The book I was away researching last week involves reading a lot of letters. Hundreds of them. When she knew what I was going to be working on, writer Charlie Jordan suggested that I write one too.

Specifically, she suggested that I write a letter to my wife, Angela. Hand write and post it. In so many dozens of ways, that would fit the spirit of the book.

If it had merely been a good idea, I would've wished I'd thought of it. Instead, for all these other reasons, it was a perfect one – and so perfect that I ought to have thought of it.

When I'd get back to the hotel after a day in the archive, I would write some more and over the week, I ended up with a few pages. Let's not be coy here, it was a love letter.

And do you know what else it was?

It was a week ago.

I posted it first class last Friday and here we are, seven days later. Here's you, here's me, Angela is over there, and the letter is nowhere to be found.

I believe the phrase you're thinking of now is “you had one job…”

I've told Angela, I've told Charlie. I've told Royal Mail too and they said that, well, first class doesn't mean next day, you know. And also that I might be able to claim compensation.

There is a little bit of me that's curious about this. If, and it of course appears to be a rather sizeable if, I were to successfully claim for compensation, I don't know what that could be.

The cost of the stamp doesn't feel like it would cover it. Nor the envelope, the paper, not even the rather long time I spent writing it.

I try to think of what a first love letter in a decade is worth. And the only measure I can think of is preventative. I'll have to do this again, I'll have to handwrite another letter.

I won't have to post it, mind.

I’m not here

I’m not here because since Monday evening, I’ve been away researching a book.

I can’t tell you what it is – ask me in a year, quite possibly two – and, for different reasons, I don’t think I can tell you what the week has been like. Not really, not adequately.

I can tell you that I stayed offline for it and can see that, across various accounts, I have fewer than 200 emails waiting for me. No idea if anyone’s @ed me on Twitter or tagged me anywhere. I suppose I’ll find that out in a minute when I post this, but as I write, I have one more eight-hour session of research.

That eight hours is not my choice, I would be at it 24 hours with naps if I could.

But if it goes as well as it possibly can, I still won’t be halfway through the research when I have to stop. I thought devoting a week to it would be enough for this stage, I also thought that a week on any one subject would be bliss. Instead of darting about everywhere and juggling everything, I could really concentrate.

I did exactly that and it was blissy – not blissful but with bliss-like moments. Overall I’m too conscious of how much more I’ve got to do and trying to figure out how to do it.

Plus, I think I can tell you this, I can’t see the story yet. I’ve a mass of information and an even bigger mass – about two times the size – that I can’t get to on this trip. But I can’t see a line through it yet, I can’t see how to tell this story.

Right now, for speed, I am documenting everything into a database, reduced to reading as little as I can in the moment but photographing it all. When I’m back in my own world, I’ll methodically go through what I’ve got and sort out chronology, examine it all, see what I’ve got.

And then hopefully I’ll see the story.

But somehow that clear and easy frustration over not being able to get to all the material, plus that intangible sense of not getting the grip on the story I expected, and the way this week has been a bubble, it’s all combined.

I understand why I’m not here, how I’m away from my office and away from online, but right now I don’t think I’m all there, either.

Change the word

It’s been Baader Meinhof Effect week. Well, it’s also been the destruction of my beloved captain’s chair, the seat I’ve been in for every book, every script, every article and too many meals. The main metal rod sheared off and sent me tumbling across my office. But while I was lying there with one leg up on my desk and the other in our kitchen, it was the Baader Meinhof Effect that I was thinking about.

The brilliant thing about this is that if you haven’t heard of it before, you will now. That’s what it is. It’s the term for how once you’ve heard of something, you suddenly keep hearing it. I guarantee that you’ll hear it again soon.

What happened is that last week I mentioned typical reactions that writers get. Now, I don’t expect anyone but writers to know or give the slightest damn what writers do or say or experience. But as people stopped me all week to say they’d had exactly those typical reactions, they also told me something that I haven’t been able to stop hearing over and over again.

Writer Jacqui Rowe started it. She told me that she kept hearing of people who dream of being writers, but what they actually dream of is anything but the writing. They dream of the book launches, they dream of celebrity parties, they dream of money.

And as soon as she said that, it seemed as if every time I checked social media, I would see another discussion about writers and our dreams or our motivations.

I get that it would make for a dull dream and a long night if you regularly fantasised about thousands of hours typing. But you’ve got to enjoy those hours because you’re going to have to do them regardless. Maybe enjoy is too simplistic a word because nobody sits here constantly beaming with happiness. But this is what I dreamed of, the writing.

It wasn’t the only thing I dreamed of. I also dreamt of seeing a book of mine in my local library. That wasn’t a long or detailed or even recurring dream because I didn’t really think it was possible. (It was. I did it in 2012, a book of mine is in the Library of Birmingham and any day now I think someone may consider being the first to borrow it.)

I want to suggest to you that this dream, the specific dream of being a writer actually writing, is a kind of pure dream. I definitely want to suggest to you that people who just dream of being a writer at a celebrity party are unlikely to manage it.

But I chiefly want to suggest all this because there is also the question of why in God’s name you, I or anyone, anywhere, ever wants to write. And there I am wondering if I just have a failure of imagination.

Baader Meinhof Effect.

Told you.

For in many of these same online discussions during the week, the same question has been asked and the responses were always what I’d call crazy-ass. Some writers said that they wrote to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. I may have exaggerated a little there, but that was the core of it. The world needs these writers, said these writers.

And maybe it does. It needs something and what it needs, it ain’t getting it from me.

I do write to pay the mortgage, thought not as cynically as that sounds, or actually as effectively. But it is an issue and it has to be. Beyond that, though, my real reason to write is just that I’ve got to find out what happens next.

Writer is Coming

That’s it, that’s all I’ve got that’s in any way to do with Game of Thrones. Writer is coming. I thought of it and, in my head, that sounded like a good title. It might be a bit portentous, I thought, and that’s not me, that’s more poncy than I intend to be. But it’s a good title and I’ve over-thought it. Except I possibly haven’t thought about it enough because now that I’ve actually written it down, now that you’re looking at it, I have an uneasy feeling that it might be rude.

Anyway.

I was thinking of this title when I got into a conversation about writing and writers. I get into these quite a lot, really, and I don’t think you’re surprised since it’s what you and I natter about all the time. But for some reason this week I noticed how similar these chats can be. I noticed that we are quite prone to the same concerns – but unfortunately also to the same nonsense.

I’m used to this from the outside. The rubbish that is said to writers is ridiculous. Sometimes it’s also manipulative. Such as a new one I heard the other day, where a film student told me that she’d been warned that if she joined a union like the Writers’ Guild – or Equity, the Musicians’ Union, any of them – she’d find it harder to get work.

Oh, yes? A producer who says that to you is not your friend. He or she is someone angling to hire you for less than the going rate. He or she is someone who is likely to tell you next that working for free is good exposure. He or she is someone the Writers’ Guild would take on in court for you.

Then there’s the issue of copyright which I think must arise naturally a little but is surely exploited by writing courses and writing tutors trying to justify why you spent money on them. I run writing courses, I am a writing tutor, and I don’t believe you can be taught writing. I think you can be taught to write better. That’s why I do it and I am not going to pad out a short course by making up rules about how you must copyright your ideas. Or Else.

I’m not saying you’ll never be ripped off – though in nearly thirty years, it’s only happened to me once – but I am saying get a life. Maybe it’s different in the US where things are more litigious and I know the Writers’ Guild of America runs a service to help writers register scripts for this reason.

But I also know this. Whenever I’ve been sent a script or, back when I was editing magazines, I was sent an unsolicited article, and the piece has copyright threats all over the front cover, I can already tell you what the following pages are going to be like. They will be amateur.

That shouldn’t be true, there shouldn’t be any reason why it could ever be true, but it always is.

Writers also always hear the same things when they’ve been asked what they do for a living. It’s either that the person who asked then tells you that they’re thinking of writing a book but they haven’t the time because they’ve got a real job like being an accountant. One variation on that: sometimes they tell you they have this brilliant idea, it’s about twins, now you just have to write it and we can split the profits.

Or more often, they say something along the lines of good luck, you might make it one day, you keep on trying.

It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, they’ll still say that. A friend I’ve known since school asked me recently whether I’ve ever been published. “Um, just a bit,” I told her.

If I’d said anything more, if I’d listed books or scripts, I’d be the one who was being rude. I’d be simultaneously boasting and defensive, I’d be preening and trying to justify myself, and this person who doesn’t read much would point out that she’s never read anything of mine. And then I’d be off saying things like you got me, I’m lying, I’ve been a fool to myself, let’s not bother with dessert, and can we have the bill now, please?

I do think she believes that I’m playing at this. That writing is something you play with until you grow up.

Anyway, you know all this, you’ve heard all of this, I’m just trying so hard not to get to the point.

Because the point is that I realised this week that for all the nonsense that’s said to writers, we don’t half say some bollocks back, too.

Maybe the biggest one is that we have a tendency to talk about writers’ block. If there’s ever anything that says writing is not a job, it’s writers’ block.

Tell me the last time you heard an engineer complain about engineer’s block, or a plumber, or a nurse. Tell me when you’ve ever heard an artist talking about painter’s block or sculptor’s block.

We own this writers’ block phrase and we deserve all we get.

It’s not that there’s some mystical interference pattern affecting our talent and it’s definitely not that the muse has taken a holiday. You don’t have writers’ block, you’re just crap today.

Maybe you were crap yesterday too, and maybe you’ll be crap tomorrow. If it goes on long enough, possibly you should look into accountancy. But you’re just having a crappy day like everybody else in every job gets.

I really don’t think we help our case by conjuring up this notion of writers’ block. I think we damage ourselves with other people because we’re sounding like we’re special little snowflakes. But I also think we do some serious, some really serious, damage to ourselves.

If you are a writer and you believe you have writers’ block today, there are only two things that can happen and neither is good. The easier one is that you might just not write now, you might postpone it to tomorrow –– and tomorrow you’re going to have writers’ block too. This is how books don’t get written, this is how scripts don’t get finished.

And even so, I call that the easier one because it can only happen when you’ve got the time. If you’re on a deadline, you don’t have any option but to press on. I prefer that, I think it’s by far the better option, but it’s not easy.

I would remind you that there are harder jobs than writing, but I’d also like to point out that there are easier ones, too.

The trouble with deadlines is that they are imposed on you, you are responding to someone else’s deadline. And when it’s the opposite, when you have the time to just not write today, you are the one who is sole control of your deadlines. Writers have a crippling tendency to not write when we don’t have to, and dressing it up with phrases like writers’ block does not help us.

All that helps writers is writing. Getting on with it.

Writing is Going.

Hung, drawn and quota-ed

Yesterday I was speaking at the National Youth Film Academy – a really good, highly practical filmmaking course – and the topic of quotas came up. Was it right, I and colleagues from Equity and Directors UK were asked, that there should be quotas for getting more women writing film and television.

And is it fair, continued the point, for women if they are only there because of a quota?

Writing isn’t fair.

And nor should it be. Not ever, not in any possible way. Film and television and radio and books and stage and games, and anything else you can think of, do not exist for writers. You do not get to write a TV drama because it’s your turn.

Instead, everything is always for the audience. It was ever thus, it will always be thus, and there has never been one moment when it should not be thus.

So of course the idea of a quota, the idea of anything that artificially changes who gets to write things ought to be wrong and we shouldn’t need it.

But we need it.

We truly, truly need quotas.

Not because we’ve got some issue and require certain percentages of shows to be by women, certain percentages by certain ethnic minorities or certain proportions of drama to be about certain issues.

We need something because we already have certain percentages and they are wrong.

Without any quotas, without any effort, we ought to naturally have a situation where everything is achieved through merit. If you’re a good enough writer, you ought to be getting to write.

So explain to me why only 14 percent of primetime UK television is written by women.

That’s the figure right now and we know it because the Writers’ Guild counted. It counted as the start of a campaign called Equality Writes and ultimately it wants to find out exactly how well or poorly represented every facet of UK life is on television and film. The Writers’ Guild started by counting women because it was possible to get that data.

Now it’s researching further, but to be honest, I’m surprised they can face it. As well as that 14 percent for TV, the figure for film is 16 percent.

Here I am stridently saying that writing isn’t fair and shouldn’t be, but tell me that 14 and 16 percent is the result of merit. Tell me that there really is just that proportion of writers who are women. While you’re at it, tell me how exactly that figure has been approximately just as low for every year the Writers’ Guild examined.

There is no possibility, not one single pixel of a possibility, that British television and film writing is by merit.

Instead, the current system is bollocks. And I chose that word carefully.

So some quota system, really some anything system, anything that changes this is necessary. Anything that breaks the system, just give me that.

I was the last of three to speak to this point yesterday and my colleagues from Equity and Directors UK were impassioned and eloquent. Representing the Writers’ Guild but also representing myself, I couldn’t really add any more to the points raised – but I also really could not just nod in agreement.

“I want quotas or anything that changes this,” I said, “because it’s right and because I care about the writers. But also because I am just so tired of seeing film and radio and television and stage all being written by boring, middle-aged white men. And I am a boring, middle-aged white man.”

You’d think in an audience of about 200 filmmakers that one of them could’ve said I was wrong about that last part, but seemingly not.

Stream Misty for Me

Tell me you do this too. There’s a song or come piece of music that you get so obsessed with that you not only could play it on a loop, but you do.

It’s often when I’m writing and I thought both that this was a little peculiar and also nuts to peculiar, I ain’t stopping now. More than fifteen years ago, I created a playlist called Discoveries and only ever added a track to it when it had been one I so obsessed over.

The rule was even more specific than that. It had to be a piece I had been drawn to play so often that I was eventually sick of it. My Discoveries playlist became around 130 songs, all of which I now loathed.

Well, a bit.

Whenever I really needed to concentrate on whatever I was writing, I would pop headphones on and tell iTunes to shuffle Discoveries. I might skip the odd track if it really was so recent that I’d gone off it, but usually I’d let everything play and I’d have a grand time.

There is one more rule and one strong guideline.

The guideline is that I avoid allowing too many tracks by the same artist. With 130 tracks or whatever it became, having the entire discography of Suzanne Vega in Discoveries would just be wrong. Tempting, but wrong.

And the rule is that once it goes into Discoveries, it cannot be taken out. Not ever. Which means that it’s not enough to be a hit I quite like, I have to really, really obsess. If I can’t listen to the one same track a hundred times in a row, it ain’t good enough to be included.

And this cannot be premeditated or even considered. It has to be that I am compelled right now to add it. I’ve been got to the stage recently where I’ve made a Discoveries Contenders playlist.

Here’s how hard it is to get into my playlist. I have only one Suzanne Vega song in it. That surprised me a lot. That surprised me so much that I must surely revisit her albums, I’d have been certain most of her Songs in Red and Gray album would be in here already.

Now that I’m looking, I see that I’ve got two by Regina Spektor. Three by Kate Bush. Four by Tanita Tikaram. Five by Dar Williams. And I didn’t expect this: seven by Bruce Springsteen.

I have also made some choices I regret.

But at some point I read an interview with – I think – Anthony Minghella. I don’t believe he has a Discoveries playlist, but there was some comment about how he would have single songs on endless repeat. I hope it was him, I’d rather be a little bit like Anthony Minghella than a lot like the nutter I thought I was.

And then there’s this. Last night, I was in a supermarket queue and it really, really slowly dawned on me that nobody else was dancing.

I was wearing AirPods, these blissful wireless headphones, and I was shuffling Discoveries. To be specific, I was being incapable of standing still because I had Tómame by Francisca Valenzuela in my ears.

And as I’d left my car, as I entered the supermarket and as I walked down aisle 9, I wasn’t humming the lyrics, I was instead saying “Hey, Siri, play that again”.

Valenzuela is a Chilean singer and I rarely understand a word of her songs – weirdly, I never like her English-language ones as much – and right now she has six tracks in my Discoveries.

And here’s the other thing. It took at least fifteen years to get to somewhere around 130 tracks. But in the last three years I’ve added another 110.

That’s entirely because of streaming. I subscribe to Apple Music and with one single exception, all 110 new additions to Discoveries come from that service. The exception is Kate Bush’s reggae cover of Rocket Man which I had to actually buy. I barely remembered how to do that.

This is on my mind because of the supermarket dance. It’s also on my mind because if it’s streaming music that’s got me several Francisca Valenzuela tracks, it was iTunes that got me my first back around 2007.

I worry about how artists must get lost in the flood of our being able to listen to just about anything at any moment and for practically no cost.

But I’m not kidding about dancing in Asda and I’m really not kidding about my Discoveries playlist. You and I can immediately listen to any of millions of songs yet I will play the same one over and over again as I write.

Imagine writing something that a stranger obsesses over, internalises, and lives for.

While I piddle about making playlists.